Making the most

The manufacturing element of the life cycle of a processed food product is the element commonly believed to generate most of the product's recognised impacts on the natural environment. Whilst many of these impacts have been identified, they tend to be managed as threats or problems, rather than as opportunities to improve competitiveness. Such opportunities, says Richard Poynton, are there for the taking.

It is an arresting fact that in Great Britain, for every tonne of manufactured product (all types, not just food), an average of 11 tonnes of dry materials is required. In commercial terms, this means paying, in one way or another, for 11 tonnes of materials to put just one tonne down the revenue earning stream, assuming that there is little or no revenue to be gleaned from by-products and wastes. Companies, then, pay heavily for disposing of the 10 tonnes of ‘waste’, in terms of costs of handling, temporary storage and record keeping, as well as in disposal charges and landfill tax. Whilst manufacturing is not responsible for all of this waste, it frequently holds the key to reducing or eliminating wastes, both on-site and up and down the chains of supply and utilisation.

Cost the misuse

To effect a change of manufacturing practice, requires a change of culture. Board level commitment to materials efficiency is an essential prerequisite. Next in line is the appointment of one or more ‘champions’ to catalyse and co-ordinate ideas from those at the coal-face – usually the thrift experts in their own work. What is needed is a culture which challenges familiar operational practices in a constructive way, with the question: Can we do this better, to reduce competitively waste and impact on the environment, without compromising health & safety and/or product quality & safety?

Service plant is the centre of usage, certainly as far as utilities are concerned. Service plant is regarded as costly to change and somewhat inflexible and for these reasons, any approach to improvement has to be well researched. Typically there may be comprehensive information on intakes, particularly of utilities, but there is usually a much less clear understanding of the usage of the services provided, e.g. water flows through, or power and refrigeration usage by specific process units; or the energy efficiency of the compressed air system, a major energy user in food plants. Taking the time to look into these aspects of your services operation, especially if your site has an ageing infrastructure, usually reveals opportunities to improve, which offer very attractive pay-backs on the time spent and on any necessary investment.

Simply taking the time to cost the misuse of services, e.g. an unnecessary water overflow, or the over-freezing of product during weekend storage, reveals as hard figures the case for doing better and frequently dispels the common assumption that such wastes are trivial and will never pay back the inputs required to correct them. Given the commitment of senior management and the drive of a local ‘champion’, a lot can be done with little or no investment between major service plant refits, to reduce waste, cost and environmental impact. In themselves, none of the small changes made may grab headlines, but when added together and multiplied day by day, they represent worthwhile gains which aid competitiveness. Once this new mind-set is in place, major savings become apparent, which can be accurately costed and which can be achieved by design, when the next service plant refit is planned. For example, if boiler water treatment plant is being refitted, once you know the total savings accruing from recycling the spent ion-exchange resins, instead of having to dispose of them as a costly hazardous waste, the full benefits of redesigning your plant for recycling become apparent.

Processing lends itself to the same approach, authorised by a committed senior management and catalysed on the ground by capable, enthusiastic champions. At the front end, your plant may be taking in raw produce from the field and cleaning and trimming it prior to processing. This generates putrescible wastes and soil, both of which are very undesirable as effluent constituents.

Can we do this better?

Can we do this better? Do you have to haul all this waste into the plant in the first place? Could you not relocate some of the preparatory work to the farms, to where in many cases the off-cuts are returned as animal feed? If this is not practicable, then is modern composting – which may generate an additional revenue – a viable alternative? If you have to separate and handle soil as a waste, are you sure that there are not revenue-earning opportunities for such a valuable material, within affordable transport range? If it must go to landfill, are you, assuming the soil is clean, paying the lower landfill tax rate and not the full active waste rate?

Throughout the process chain of heating, mixing, cooling, drying, packing and perhaps freezing, there are individual impacts on the environment to be managed by food processors. Many of these impacts are covered by separate Acts and Regulations. This fragmentation can make it difficult to see the whole impact and compliance picture, in a way which enables the process to be designed, operated and managed for the best business and environmental outcome. Contrary to popular belief, these two outcomes are not mutually exclusive. The concepts of economy and ecology are complementary parts of the same ‘mother concept’, which is ‘good housekeeping’. As industry is obliged to accept an ever greater proportion of its external costs – including those of pollution and waste – it is becoming harder to remain competitive without managing these impacts effectively.


The law and the land

There are two strong drivers which are encouraging a more holistic view of process design and management.

First, the new Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) regime will, for those regulated under it, require the management of the total emissions and usages relating to the entire installation. Regulation will be via permits to operate, which will set control limits for emissions and materials and utilities usage, but which will be designed to ensure that best practice, as expressed by the principles of “Best Available Techniques” (BAT), is applied.

Initially, this will demand measurement and management sufficient to control the emissions and usages of the whole installation. Over time, because the emphasis of IPPC is on prevention, it will require process and product management to be designed as an integrated whole. This will require a new approach, in which minimising environmental impact will be a design criterion of equivalent significance to operating cost and functional effectiveness.

Second, the outlines of ‘sustainable operation’ are now beginning to emerge from the uncertainties surrounding the concept. What is becoming clear, is that manufacturers will carry much more responsibility for the stewardship of the materials which they bring into the commercial cycle. This means going several steps further than looking holistically at your own plant, to looking at the whole life impact of a product, from raw material production/extraction, through the supply chain, manufacturing stages, product distribution and on to final disposal.

There should be no ‘wastes’ as such – only secondary materials, for which the business which generated them will have an obligation, under Producer Responsibility, to find an acceptably productive use. Such materials stewardship obligations are a natural development of regimes such as that of packaging waste – the first of an intended series forming the stepping stones towards sustainable operation.

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